Concert Review

City of London Sinfonia (Richard Hickox, conductor) at the Barbican, November 6th 1999
Nicholson stramash; Osborne oboe concerto (Nicholas Daniel); Berkeley cello concerto; Tavener the protecting veil (Steven Isserlis)

All the composers attended and gave brief introductions to their pieces in this celebration of British music, given before a smallish but encouragingly youthful audience. Alasdair Nicholson's bright and breezy Scots starter (stramash means 'commotion') was a collage of reels which the composer likened to "when the pubs close on Saturdays". It has had eight performances and gets an audience into a good mood. There was a nice episode with jagged rhythmic unisons, but mostly it suggested quite a decorous pub!

Michael Berkeley had revised his short, light cello concerto, which he said had a closer relationship to his famous father's ideals than most of his music. From where I sat, Steven Isserlis's cello was buried behind a huge music stand, which swallowed much of his tone, especially against the more fully scored orchestral passages. Moved closer after the interval to hear better, his familiar performance of Tavener's highly successful meditation impressed again with its sincerity and astonishing bow control in an unendingly ecstatic melodic line heard live, though it does begin to seem awfully long!

Tavener told us that Isserlis clinched this commission by confessing his own devotion to the Orthodox Church, which he attends at Easter. He wrote the solo line quickly, then added a string orchestra 'halo'. Tavener, England's chief exponent of what I dubbed the new Holy Simplicity when reviewing Grocer's 3rd symphony, has moved far since Alvar Liddell declaimed from the Encyclopaedia Britannica until overwhelmed by the young Tavener's radical music for The Whale, at London Sinfonietta's auspicious debut concert in 1968! Now, he has a tendency to repeat himself in a long succession of pieces which have found a ready response in people reacting against modernism and yearning for spiritual nourishment. He has not avoided a tendency to repeat himself and thereby to alienate himself from some of us who were bowled over the first time we heard The Protecting Veil.

Most interesting were the three rather separate pieces comprising Nigel Osborne's idiosyncratic oboe concerto of 1998, receiving its London premiere. The mostly slow outer movements reflected his involvement with the desecration and rebuilding of Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Between these, a brief virtuosic depiction of Wild Birds (Messiaen plus jazz influenced, with lots of swooping glissandos) inspired by Osborne's 'performance art' collaborations with a sculptor friend for whom he "sings and makes funny noises"! Osborne's sound world is elusive and evocative, and we seem to have heard too little of him in the concert hall recently?

Both soloists were excellent and well supported by the City of London Sinfonia in this testing programme. The programme notes lacked proof checking - many spelling mistakes, and I doubt whether John Tavener really sought to capture "the almost comic power of the Mother of God".

Peter Grahame Woolf

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